Note to economic planners: put needs before greed

By Raffique Shah
January 17, 2018

Raffique ShahDr Terrence Farrell’s resignation last week as chairman of the Government-appointed Economic Development Advisory Board brought into focus a long-simmering conflict between economists and business interests in one camp, more or less; the Government, which sees the economy primarily through the prism of political power, on the other; and trade unions and a disparate population that sense the near-violent instability of the ship of state and recognise the need for adjustments by all passengers on board, from captain to cook, but each one expecting the other, not him, to move.

The debate on how the country extricates itself from its energy dependency, commodities that, up to a few years ago, contributed the bulk of a healthy gross domestic product (GDP) that stood at approximately TT $150 billion, and 80 percent of foreign exchange earnings, has been as old as when the first oil boom of 1973 turned into a bust less than a decade later.

It spanned governments from Dr Eric Williams’s, who, in 1976, in the euphoria of high oil prices and Hasely Crawford’s gold medal run at the Montreal Olympics, crowed “money is no problem”, to George Chambers’s reality check in 1981, “fete done, back to wuk”. It brought the PNM crashing from power in 1986 and sent its successor, the NAR, cap in hand to the IMF, ushering in more than a decade of austerity measures that pauperised the already-poor and many among the middle classes, and even took a few wickets among the wealthy.

By the time the oil dollars started flowing again around the turn of the century, except for monetising natural gas through the downstream industries at Point Lisas and Atlantic LNG, credits to the technocrats more than the economists, the politicians and the people had learnt no lessons. The gravy train got longer and thicker, with governments doling out dollars like “parsad”, and the new and expanded “kleptocracy”, be-suited bandits closely linked to politicians-in-office, brazenly stealing from the public purse.

Diversification of the economy remained a hackneyed phrase, mouthed to give the impression that some people were thinking outside of the oil-barrel, but never seriously addressed. Among the bulk of the business elites, it was always safer to buy manufactured goods cheap from China, mark up and make profits if not profiteer based on demand and supply. And Government, which led the way in the downstream energy industries, made such a mess of the State enterprises, planting square political pegs in round corporate holes, was forced to sell out industrial plants at basement prices, only to see the buyers (Mittal and ISCOTT, CL Energy and the first methanol plant) make fortunes that ought to have boosted the Treasury, not other people’s bottom lines.

Now that we are once more on the edge of the economic abyss, the economists see the solution in harsh, IMF-like measures that will cripple the poor and the middle classes more than other sectors of the society. The elites will bear some pin-pricks—postpone buying another Mercedes, hold off on investing in a $10-million property deal, etc—but the good times will roll on for them.

Farrell’s resignation from the EDAB has intensified the “whither Trinidad and Tobago” debate. But in my humble, layman’s view, it has failed to stimulate new perspectives that might steer the ship of state away from turbulence and into waters that might be uncharted, but in a direction that might just allow this tiny country to avert the global hurricane that looms large on the horizon—the titanic clash between the “one percent” and the masses, the war over a more equitable distribution of the wealth of nations.

A good starting point for redirecting the debate is using Mahatma Gandhi’s famous dictum, “The world has enough (resources) for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.” This is not intended to revive the utopianism of my youthful days when, as young revolutionaries, we pursued the dream of an egalitarian society, something we can still dream of, but realistically, we know is unattainable.

An equitable society, one in which wealth is created and distributed such that the yawning gap between the very wealthy and the mass of people is narrowed, is surely something that we can achieve if only we can believe in ourselves, and if every able-bodied citizen is prepared to contribute.

From this perspective, while increasing GDP is important, and a high per capita GDP is impressive, the economists will agree that as indicators, they tell a misleading story. A few years ago, T&T boasted of a per capita GDP of US $20,000. That was the third highest in the hemisphere, and translated into every four-person household producing the equivalent of TT $500,000 per year.

If 50 percent of that reflected incomes, it meant that the average annual household-income should be approximately $250,000—which we know is way beyond reality. In fact, a decent middle-income family earns less than half of that. So boosting GDP does little to dampen poverty. But it does a whole lot for the “tender-preneurs” (to borrow an Afra Raymond word) and the very wealthy.

The Ghandian approach should guide the restructuring of the economy now that we have yet another opportunity to start afresh, in a manner of speaking. Needs must come before greed or we shall be damned to eat the bread the Devil knead.

5 thoughts on “Note to economic planners: put needs before greed”

  1. Often time I think about the vast sums of money that goes into bank accounts abroad. Money from “kickbacks” that was a common experience during the years of plenty.

    During Eric days there was the 10% man who collected 10% basically a “tithe” (without being irreligious) from all government contracts. Later it was found out that he received 2.5% for his part the rest went to a certain lady whose wealth is mind boggling. Then there was the Jonny O buildings in Canada and in other parts of the world.

    The truth is the temptation remains today. The Minister of Sport Mr. Daryll Smith recently got a nice Chinese kickback that went to his imaginery foundation. How much is it nobody knows but he boasted of the Foundation before, until the AG had a “chit-chat” with him. Nothing wrong with it but ah the secrecy and the media silence. And then there is $90 million fake oil scandal, the issue is now in the DPP office sitting there and gathering dust.

    The PNM when in power always behaved as though the treasury belong to them and their supporters. It is a psychological and emotionally thing for them to see a black man in the PM chair even if he quietly stealing tax payers dollars. The question is who is going to guard the guards.

  2. I have always been an admirer of Gandhi. Every year in January or October my favourite thing to do is to watch the movie Gandhi. The movie was the work of the British genius David Attenborough. It is over 3 hours long so I am glued to my IPad way past midnight. It is a reminder of how the simple life can be far more exiting than the world filled with pomp and pageantry.

    Gandhi message and lesson is a powerful reminder of a man who understood the true nature of independence. He disengaged himself economically, politically and socially from those who had a grip on his wallet and lifestyle. Made his own clothing, drank his own goat milk, lived in his ashram and was able to walk over 200 miles to produce salt in the Indian Ocean during his epic salt March. He taught the people the most important rule, don’t fund those who are oppressing you by buying or using their goods and services.

    In Trinidad the rule “keeping up with the Jones” is a factual reality. Etched within the ethos of the ordinary wannabe. We weight ourselves on the material scale. In the 1950s there were several documentaries made that explain the way people view materialism. One was made of a black family. In it the narrator says when a black man comes to your store and ask you the price of an expensive watch, do not look at him as though you are surprise. For the black man that watch is a status symbol and he will purchase it to impress those with whom he comes in contact. It symbolize his high status from a world that is define as the have and have nots. It is no wonder the youths will only wear designer shoes. And designer clothing.

    The area where I once lived is a hotbed for housing as a status symbol. One neighbour built a house with 18 Windows, just so that he can impress all the folks in village. People and politicians must not enslave themselves to Western materialism.

    It is the studied art of making customers turn into consumers by using advertising to achieve such. We live in a consumer oriented society where brand names, expensive cars and the like are all status symbols. Much like the Bensons, “We’d moving up finally got a piece of the pie”. Western materialism can turn you into a deficient person if you are not surrounded with items that bring you temporary pleasure.

    I grew up in a simple culture where we grew everything much like Gandhi. Today everything is purchased. I do manage a back yard from time to time. I derive the greatest please of picking tomatoes and cucumbers from it…

  3. As we saw during the last PP government the PMNM behaviour has transferred to the UNC. We were promised the end to all this graft and kickbacks but we got super graft and kickbacks. We have seen that no politician in Trinidad and Tobago is beyound reproach. They all do the 10% thing. The poor citizens of TT are the ones to feel the effects of all this stealing from the public purse. We are all poorer from this dishonest activity of our politicians.

    1. Assuming you we right, I don’t know. Why is it that after 3 budgets the PNM cannot explain where the money is going? In Tobago people are suffering, not getting paid on time. The same in trinidad where several regional coperations do not have money. They have laid off staff and waiting for more money.

      From 2010 to 2013 the Partnership budget was $162 billion. You never heard of people not getting paid. You never heard of any tax increases. In fact the unemployment rate was 3.5%. Not bad for a government labeled as “thieves” by PNM psychophants.

      From 2015 to 2018 the Rowley budget has been $166.9 billion. Yet you heard of no medicine in the hospital. A massive set of tax increases, massive unemployment, people not getting paid on time. There has been three tax increases on the price of gas. That alone affects transportation cost and everything goes up.

      Kamla increased old age pension, increased minimum wage,increase maternity, gave government workers over 25% increase in wages and benefits. She left an additional $32 billion in the HSF and Forex. Rowley in 3 years eh put a black cent in the HSF, instead he is slowly emptying it.

      Where the money going under this bureaucracy?

  4. Sita Ram,
    To rule is to serve, Public servants and the PNM must now serve Indians like how UNC served the Africans no if or buts.

    Do not try to convert Hindus we do not care for your religion, If you all were true to yourselves you would have changed the symbol of the cross to that of the water carrier or maybe that looks too much like a Hindu lady offer water during a Puja/Prayers?

    I know that any Government COP,cePEP, UNC or PNM will only work for themselves and to enrich their colour, caste, race and religion and only to fill their pockets with the atheist tax payers money.

    We know the Vatican are Satanists and that Catholics hide behind religion because “Jesus Forgives the sinners” in their crooked minds after thievery of the People’s Treasury through fake companies with one or two shareholders and a foreign bank account in Miami ignoring the Laws of T&T.

    To diversifly the economy is to have one of the Piper race of people do the Agricultural work and from what yuh Uncle Caca has seen T&T has many a flourishing Marijuana Farmer that does hide in the bush and grow crops and have a wide distribution network from White skin lochos in Colombus circle to dhal belly Police officers in Besson Street to the High office official stuffing things in the Diplomatic Pouch.

    Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and Malcom X and Martin Luther King and Louis Farakhan are irrelevant to the younglings that growing up watching “Price is Right” “Young and Restless” and “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and “Pimp my Ride” they will not care to attend your Mandir,Church and Masjid and give Sewa, Tithes and Zakat when all they want to do is coast/ Show off on each other, show how pale skin they can be like the flim stars and drive expensive overweight vehicles with Pong (Loud music) for our roads to flick up the roads and show people that they reach and they can bull and bully people and out fete each other.

    I go tell the truth when the douens running for carnival I does get so much done with government services it amazing.

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